Make Your Strategic Plan More Strategic

Strategic plans come in all shapes, sizes and levels of usefulness. When done well, they serve as the centerpiece of an organization’s operations. When not done well, they usually lack any real strategy. Often, they become an annual check-list of what needs to be done, instead of providing direction for future initiatives. Long-term plans that lack strategy general become paper weights sitting on a shelf and collecting dust until the next planning session.

Businessmen planning business strategy while holding puzzle pieces, creating ideas with light bulb drawn on paper and rearranging wooden blocks. Conceptual of teamwork, strategy, vision or education.

Do not let this happen to your strategic plan. Instead of wasting valuable time creating something nobody intends to follow, spend your time putting real strategy in your strategic plan.

Focus on the Big Picture
Strategy is about the big picture. It’s the “what” of your strategic plan. In other words, what does your financial institution hope to accomplish? What will make us sustainable for the long term? Do we have the right business model in place to make us competitive? These are some of the questions your executive team should ask in your planning session. All too often, planning sessions stall because executives don’t think broadly enough. Answer the big questions first, then spend time on tactics, which answer how your financial institution will carry out those big picture initiatives.

Choose a Destination
If you get in your car with no destination in mind, there’s a good chance you’ll waste time and gas driving around aimlessly. It’s no different with a strategic plan that lacks direction. Everything your employees do should tie back to strategy, which is tied to your mission and vision and core values. It’s all connected. If your executive team hasn’t decided where it’s going in three to five years, or even next year for that matter, you are driving in reverse without even realizing it.

Make high-level decisions
Do we need to build more branches? Do we need to close a branch or two? What consumers should we be targeting? What factors are keeping us from being a better financial institution? What is the one thing we must do to grow our financial institution in the coming year? These are the types of questions you should answer in your planning session. Decide the “what” part of your strategy first, then focus on how you will do it.

Your Company Culture Matters

If I asked you to describe your financial institution’s company culture, what would your answer be? Does your financial institution even have a company culture?

Every company has a culture whether they realize it or not. That culture is defined by values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors, which often start at the executive level and trickle down. Ideally, a company’s core values is at the heart of its culture, but often the words that hang on the wall are not the actions employees are encouraged to take.

Company Culture concept on blackboard

This matters, because your customers or members experience your culture even if employees don’t think you have one. They experience it in your products and services. They experience it in the pride your employees demonstrate for your financial institution. They experience it in the way your employees treat them.

That’s a great thing if your culture is one in which employees feel valued, are empowered to make decisions and love their jobs. Think about how happy Starbucks employees are all the time. They greet customers with a smile and a chipper personality even at 6 a.m. Could you imagine how ugly it would get at your local Starbucks that early in the morning if the culture was toxic? It would be every man for himself until the coffee is poured.

That is why culture matters so much. Toxic cultures yield toxic environments, which yield toxic employees who deliver bad service. People remember how someone makes them feel. If your customers or members get treated badly, that could be the difference between them banking with you or your competitor.

If your financial institution’s culture is toxic or perhaps just needs some work, you can change it. Start with your core values and your leadership team. Whatever those values are, your leaders have to live them daily in their jobs. They can’t pick and choose which ones work for them personally. They have to carry out the values established by your financial institution every single day. If they don’t, their employees won’t either.

Second, leaders must review those values with their staff and outline the expectations that come with those values. If someone can’t or won’t live up to them, that is grounds for termination.

Thirdly, hire people whose personalities and values fit your culture. Skills are important, but skills can be learned or increased with proper training and education. Personalities are inherent and generally don’t change. If you already know a candidate’s personality doesn’t fit with your culture, it shouldn’t matter how much skill they have for the job. They will be toxic to your culture.

Your financial institution’s culture is critical to your brand and vice versa. If they aren’t working together in harmony, your financial institution will struggle to grow and succeed.

Goal Prioritizing and Strategic Planning

As you work towards the bottom of the funnel in your strategic planning process, you come to establishing goals. Since there are probably plenty of voices represented at your strategic planning table, it makes sense that your efforts will generate a number of goals.

Doodle design style concept of setting and achieving business goals, strategy building, opportunities in business. Modern line style illustration for web banners, hero images, printed materials

This is a point at which some strategic planning processes break-down. The goal of your plan is not to develop a laundry list of pet projects from every department. Rather, it is to identify goals and initiatives that can best position your credit union for success in the coming years.

Prioritizing these goals is critical. And, yes, there are some goals that, for a number of reasons, you may have to scrap altogether. Once you have paired your overall goal list down to a manageable number (while it varies from credit union to credit union, a good rule of thumb is no more than five), your team must now turn its attention towards ranking these goals in order of importance.

Toes will be stepped on. Egos will be bruised. This is to be expected. Some people will see their cherished initiative tabled for a year while others receive priority status. The participants in your strategic planning process must have thick skin and realize that for the greater good of the credit union, this necessary prioritization of goals is a good thing (and not a personal affront).

In order to work, your strategic plan must be easily reduced to a lowest common denominator of useful initiatives. Too many goals translates to too many cooks in the kitchen and your once valiant strategic plan will quickly devolve into a quagmire of unrealized potential and squandered opportunity.

Let your strategic planning team know ahead of time that goal prioritization is a necessity. This information, shared up-front, can help lessen the sting of seeing a particular goal tabled and will prep your team for the strategic planning challenges ahead.

You Should be Hiring Millenials

A common trend in the United States is to blame everything wrong with our country on Millennials. OK. That’s a slight exaggeration, but if we’re being honest, Millennials often get blamed for causing trouble.

They also have been stereotyped as lazy with zero work ethic. What many people don’t realize is Millennials range in age from teenagers up to about 35 years old. How on Earth can you classify such a diverse group with one stereotype?

Group of young business people and designers.They working on new project.Startup concept.

They also have been stereotyped as lazy with zero work ethic. What many people don’t realize is Millennials range in age from teenagers up to about 35 years old. How on Earth can you classify such a diverse group with one stereotype?

Like all previous generations, Millennials have overachievers and underachievers. There are Millennials who do the right thing and Millennials who do the wrong thing. You have Millennials who over spend and Millennials who are responsible with their money. And, like previous generations, Millennials also have attributes that set them apart, regardless of their age.

First, they are highly educated. In fact, they are the most educated generation in history. Yes, they are more college educated than previous generations, but Millennials area also Jetsons. They grew up and are still growing up in a digital age where information is always at their fingertips. They have a lot of knowledge that could benefit your financial institution.

Millennials also are technology adopters, and their learning curve is narrow. These are people who grew up with the Internet. The youngest Millennials were practically born with tablets in their hands. As a result, they tend to be progressive thinkers. They understand new technologies that their parents and older co-workers do not, and they are excited about using technology to improve work efficiency and the customer/member experience and they want to share it.

Perhaps the best reason to hire Millennials, however, is their connection to other Millennials. They know what makes their friends tick. They know what products and services their friends need. They understand what messages are most effective for targeting their own age group. Many financial institutions continue struggling to attract this younger generation of people, in part, because they don’t hire enough of them. The same holds true for your board of directors. If you don’t have Millennials on your board of directors, your financial institution will continue struggling to attract this younger demographic.

Use their knowledge. Use their progressive thinking. Use their friendships and social connections to make your brand more Millennial friendly. Your financial institution will benefit greatly from their insight.

Millennials are More Than a Demographic

Youth Friends Friendship Technology Together Concept


It’s a question many credit unions still struggle to answer. How do we attract more Millennials to our credit union? You’ve used every possible way you can think of to market to them, but they’re just not interested.

The next question you should ask is why aren’t they interested in what you are offering? It could be ineffective marketing, but more than likely, they are not interested because your credit union has not adequately addressed the Millennial members in its strategic plan. You can’t expect them to respond to your marketing if you don’t do business in a way that caters to their needs.

Do your products meet their needs? Millennials have different needs than people older than them. Many of them don’t have checking accounts. They use pay cards instead – debit cards on which they receive their paychecks. All of the major national banks offer them. Does your credit union? Do you offer any products attractive to Millennials?

Is your atmosphere conducive to the Millennial mindset? Younger Millennials in particular are not attracted to branch offices that look like stuffy financial institutions. They want something more flashy and less “banky.” They also like to learn and are the generation with the least amount of financial knowledge. Giving them a space where they can browse and learn and even network would go a long way in attracting this young group of people.

Does your technology live up to their expectations? This one is a given. Millennials were practically born with tablets or other devices in their hands. They want fast and convenient service that is compatible with whatever device they have. That means mobile banking, mobile payments and mobile deposits. It may even mean personal teller machines in the branches.

These are the types of questions your executive team should be discussing in your planning sessions.

Millennials have to become a part of your strategy. They cannot just be a demographic to whom you market – especially because Millennials are not all one demographic. That’s an important distinction to recognize.

The oldest Millennials are in their 30s. They are having kids and buying homes. The youngest Millennials are in high school and college. They are trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up and are defining the path that will take them there. At the very least, you are looking at two age groups with very different needs.

Marketing to Millennials is not enough. If your credit union is serious about growing its Millennial membership base – and it should be – you have to spend time planning a strategy that will cater to their wants and needs.

Plan Ownership is Key

Business Man Writing Are You Ready on Chalkboard


Okay, great. So you’ve had a strategic planning session. Everyone sat around a big table, talked a lot, shared ideas, got down in the weeds about controversial topics and maybe even worked with an outside moderator.

You’ve got your plan, printed in full color on glossy paper, bound in folders and in the hands of each participant.

Terrific. Now what? A key part of your strategic planning session actually happens after everyone leaves the table that day. This key element is answered by a simple question — who the heck owns this thing?

That’s right — who owns your strategic plan? Is it your credit union president? Members of the board? Maybe your marketing/branding expert or even someone in business development?

The answer is — everybody owns your strategic plan. Your strategic planning team absolutely must walk away from the table with the understanding that everybody involved, from the CEO/president down the organizational chart, has full ownership of this puppy.

Why is this important? Without everyone embracing their ownership of the strategic plan, it’s much more likely to fail. Certainly, key elements of your strategic plan (such as specific initiatives with time-frames and parties responsible) fall more squarely on individual folders. However, the overall plan (and its success or failure) is the responsibility of everyone on the strategic planning team. No one can be the “fall guy” or sacrificial lamb if parts of the plan should falter. Conversely, no one person should get all the glory and accolades if parts (or all) of the plan succeed.

Strategic plan ownership requires initiative, honesty and buy-in. Make sure everyone around your strategic planning table understands his or her stake in this process. And make doubly sure they understand that (once all the cussing and discussing is done) they are 100% part-owners in the entire plan.

Caught Doing Something Good


Written by Colleen Cormier, Account Executive for Credit Union Strategies

When my son was in Kindergarten, he sometimes came home with a little badge stuck to his shirt that said “Caught Doing Something Good.” The bottom of the badge had a place for the teacher to write a few words about how he was demonstrating exemplary behavior. This was a simple yet effective way to celebrate good behavior which made my son feel good about himself. It also reinforced future good decisions, because he remembered how it felt to be praised for doing the right thing.

Let’s’ face it, the human psyche thrives on validation and appreciation. Even as adults, we love it when someone praises us for making a good choice, doing a good job or going above and beyond to get something done. Why is it, then, that more companies don’t implement programs to praise their employees for a job well done, or for doing something that isn’t necessarily their job at all?

Caught walking an elderly member to her car. Awesome service, Mary! 

Caught helping a co-worker diffuse a heated member interaction. Good job, Joe!

Caught putting more paper in the copy machine after finishing a copy job. Way to go, Pat!

Caught filling in for another employee who had a family emergency. Thank you, Bob!

Employee job satisfaction directly impacts your bottom line. This infographic produced by Good & Co shows that happy employees increase company productivity and revenue. Here are just a few statistics:

  • Happy employees are 31% more productive
  • Companies where the majority of employees are disengaged saw their operating income worsen year over year by 32.7%
  • Companies with a highly engaged workforce have nearly 50% fewer accidents, 41% fewer quality defects and incur far fewer healthcare costs than their counterparts
  • 69% of employees said they would work harder if they were better recognized

Of all the tasks leaders have to accomplish on a daily basis, this might be the easiest thing her or she can do to impact the bottom line. Sometimes, the simple act of saying thank you is enough to make an employee feel appreciated. Don’t stop there. Give them something tangible that serves as a reminder that you appreciate them – a special badge, certificate or other token they can display in their work stations to show everyone they are doing a great job.

Just like that Kindergarten program that recognized my son’s good behavior, your simple act of recognizing your employees will do more than just celebrate them. It also will be an incentive for them to continue doing a great job. That’s a win-win for your credit union, your employees and your members.


Strategic Planning as Bridge Building



At your credit union strategic planning session, you (hopefully) have a diversity of opinions around the table. Diversity in this case means a good cross-representation of your organization’s staff.

Obviously, this means key players like the board of directors, CEO/president, various vice presidents and marketing/business development representation. You should also include representatives from your frontline consumer engagement staff and those more involved with back office operations.

While a key reason for this representation is certainly enhanced diversity of voices around the table, you must also look at your strategic planning session as a great opportunity to build bridges between staff.

For example, your or credit union president may spend most of his or her time working with the board and members of the executive leadership team. That person must also absolutely spend time with both frontline and back office staff, in order to gain a better appreciation for their roles and their importance to the proper functioning of your financial institution.

Similarly, your executive leadership team should look at the strategic planning process as an opportunity to strengthen ties with mid-level managers and branch personnel. How often do members of your executive leadership team have an opportunity to visit with (quite often) scattered and distant branches? The answer is “probably not enough.” Your strategic planning session offers a great opportunity to build bridges amongst these key players.

Lastly, as the leaders of the credit union, how much exposure does your board of directors have to staff other than the president and key members of the executive leadership team? Your entire organization looks to the board for leadership, guidance and support. The board of directors can certainly use the strategic planning process as a prime time to get in better sync with other members of your credit union team.

Your strategic planning session is designed to identify key initiatives and set plans in motion to achieve them. However, don’t lose sight of a terrific by-product of the strategic planning process — building stronger bridges with the rest of your team.

Does Your Financial Institution Have Enough Life Jackets?

Green life vest floating in swimming pool

My colleague and her family recently spent a day speed boating. Every so often, they jumped in the water with their life jackets on to take a swim. Initially, their teenage son questioned why they were wearing life jackets when they all knew how to swim. Then, two of them jumped into a part of the lake where the current kept pushing them further from the boat. Her husband tried getting to them, but the boat wouldn’t start up. She and her son spent about 30 minutes fighting the current and eventually swimming to land. Without those life jackets, this story might not have a happy ending.

Sometimes financial institutions are in the same boat. Something unexpected happens, and they don’t have that life jacket or back-up plan to help them stay afloat. Here are a few situations which may require a life jacket.

Long-time employee leaves. We all like to believe certain employees will be around forever, but life happens. They get new opportunities, leave to take care of loved ones or just retire. Your financial institution should have succession plans in place to capture their knowledge before they walk out the door. You should also cross train employees regularly so each critical function at your financial institution has a minimum of two people in charge of it.

Core sponsor has a big lay-off. If your core sponsor lays off a significant percentage of employees, or even worse, goes out of business, can your credit union survive? What plans do you have in place to continue serving members who may need work-out plans to repay their loans? Do you have other relationships in place to continue attracting new consumers and new loans?

Your competition doubles overnight. Your bottom line could take a hit if your top competitor doubles in size as the result of a merger with another financial institution. That’s especially true if they end up with several locations across the street from yours. Do you have the marketing dollars to handle that?

Life jackets and back-up plans are like insurance. You may never need them, but when something unexpected happens, they help keep your financial institution afloat. If you don’t have them in place now, that is something to discuss at your next planning session.

Become the Manager Others Want You to be

climbing helping team work , success concept

I know. It sounds a little odd to to hear someone say you should become the manager other people want you to be. Isn’t that the exact opposite of what being in charge entails? The answer is no. Unless, of course, you’re more interested in managing than leading.

Peter Drucker, hailed by Business Week as the man who invented management, made clear distinctions between leaders and managers. Leaders lead people. Managers manage tasks. Leaders lift people to greater visions and higher standards. They inspire. Managers focus less on people’s needs and more on what needs to get done.

The kind of manager others want you to be is one who leads. That doesn’t mean making friends with your employees or letting them take advantage of you. It means managing tasks while providing the vision, motivation and empowerment your employees need to execute those tasks.

Leadership can make or break your financial institution. It’s so important that a credit union CEO hired us to develop a customized leadership training program for her mid-level managers. She believed growing managers into leaders was the path to growing her credit union. Their bottom line has improved as a result.

Here are some tips to help you lead effectively.

Be their coach. Help employees identify where they excel and where they need improvement, then coach them accordingly. Developing and empowering your employees builds their skill level and their loyalty to your team.

Give credit where credit is due. Nothing kills team spirit and employee morale like taking credit for someone else’s exceptional work. Praise employees and give them credit when their work is outstanding.

Focus on the positives. Even when you have to critique an employee, use the praise-criticism-praise method. Example: “You did a great job on that proposal. (praise) For the next one, I’d like you to work on using fewer words to get to the point. (criticism) This a fantastic start, and I know you will continue to grow in this area. (praise)”

Admit your mistakes. We all make them. Admitting them to your employees makes you appear more genuine and sincere. Employees have a greater respect for leaders who are honest and transparent.

A management position is not a badge of power. It’s a mark of responsibility to yourself, your company and the people you manage. Effective managers are strong leaders.

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